Ever found yourself completely lost in a film? Not lost as in engrossed. I’m talking lost as in staring at the screen, eyes bloodshot and bulging, as you try desperately to understand even a fraction of what in the name of baby Jeebus is going on? Have you ever taken said film and tossed it into oncoming traffic to escape from the relentless beating its giving to your befuddled mind? If so, then Darken may not be the film for you…
…Directed by Audrey Cummings (Tormented, She Never Died) and written by RJ Lackie, Darken tells the story of a nurse named Eve (Bea Santos) who is transported to a labyrinthine, prison like world. There, she meets “exiles” Mercy (Zoe Belkin) and Kali (Olunike Adeliyi), who have been cast out by the murderous leader of a religious sect named Clarity (Christine Horne), a cult which worships a supernatural being known only as Mother Darken…noticing any on the nose theme with the names yet? Together, Eve and her new allies must fight to escape this world of rooms and darkness with Clarity and her minions hot on their tail.
I always love it when a film largely features women in strong, badass roles. In that sense, Darken is great. While there may not be a lot of depth to any of these characters, (we have one brief moment early on where Eve’s mother gives her the ole “you can’t save everyone” line, so we know she has a heart), the actresses all have a strong screen presence, even Zoe Belkin as the mute Mercy. Bea Santos does well with appearing genuinely disgusted at the violence going on around her, which makes it especially surprising when she channels her inner Ripley and kicks some disciple ass. Despite the strong female presence though, I have to say I think Ari Millen steals the show as Clarity’s right-hand man, Martin. He’s the first voice we hear in Darken, and Millen is right at home in putting on his best creep face. You never doubt that this is an insane person. The eeriness of his absolute commitment to Clarity and Mother Darken feels all too real and devilish at times in a world where cults appear to have come back around. How else can we explain Trump at this point?
Here’s the thing with Darken…even though the performances are good to great and the concept itself is interesting, this film is HARD to follow, and not in a good way. This isn’t like watching Hereditary and then wanting to go back and find all of the clues that led to the ending. This is more like shaking an etch and sketch over and over again and hoping with futile persistence that it will finally make a clear picture. I’m going to be honest. I struggled with this one. Maybe that’s on me, but when your audience is fifty minutes into a film and there’s barely been one word to even hint as to what the hell is going on here, that’s a problem. Darken doesn’t do the whole Star Wars scrolling text thing. There is no wise character who stops Eve to tell her what Darken (their world), is. NOTHING. Before you start accusing me of wanting everything spoon fed to me, NO. I hate that, actually, and always prefer a film that asks more questions than it answers. Darken, however, doesn’t answer ANY questions. After Eve gets Alice in Wonderland-ed into Darken, we’re just as confused as she is the entire time. Who are these people? Why do some of them look like ancient barbarians, while others (Martin), look like he stepped out of the 1700s and lost his powdered wig? At times there are hints towards Darken being a sort of hell, but, without spoiling anything, even that theory doesn’t add up by the end. We’re not even sure who/what Mother Darken is supposed to be to these people until the last fifteen minutes or so of the film, and I often found myself wondering how there’s any such thing as “exiles” in a world that is literally a giant maze of rooms. How do these people meet? Who sends out the emails for the weekly congregation? Do they even have email? The film poorly establishes any sense of the world other than it is grim, which really hurts what is otherwise an intriguing concept. The actual synopsis for Darken describes the world as “labyrinthine rooms, interconnected with no apparent rhyme or reason”, and I could not agree more. Even Clarity’s “army” of disciples appears to consist of only a few people, which really makes you wonder how they’ve managed to exile ANYONE, though again, there’s no clue as to how many people actually populate Darken.
Speaking of the rooms, I do have to applaud the production design by Ciara Vernon. Darken clearly has its limits with the budget, but she does her best to make each room of what is probably an abandoned apartment warehouse look fresh and different enough to keep the visuals from becoming too bland. The changes aren’t in your face either, but more subtle, such as the design of Clarity’s throne, made from lightbulbs and other uncommon materials for throne building. If I must admit, I want one to decorate my own throne room…the one I built in Minecraft…
Aside from structural issues, Darken also suffers a bit from a tone issue. This one’s a bit more nitpicky, but I can’t tell if the film wants to be horror, fantasy, action, or all three mixed up into goopy wad of Mother Darken blood (yeah, that’s a thing). Films should never be just one thing, and in fact the best stories are often the ones that cross multiple genres. Where Darken becomes a bit tone deaf is in the way that it tip-toes around certain genres, without ever fully diving in. For example, there are some definite horror elements going on here, between a cult that manically serves a supernatural entity with a willingness to do whatever it takes to please her, not to mention the whole damn thing is set in a maze of eternal darkness. So you would think director Audrey Cummings would delve into that horror a bit, but instead, its often shied away from, resulting in a rather bloodless film, aside from one great image of the aftermath of a shotgun. The overall result is similar to The Purge series, films which, on the surface, should live and breathe the horror genre and would be better suited playing out like gory grindhouse horror, but are rather treated like political action films with a splash of horror here and there.
Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with Darken on the surface. The premise is interesting. The actors are great. But there just wasn’t much here for me that was all that enjoyable. This feels more like a story that would greatly benefit from a TV series (there is apparently a prologue series), or maybe even a comic, but with a run time of 82 minutes, there’s just so much to cram into such a short film that Darken ends up looking over any valuable information entirely to move the plot along as quickly as possible. I WANT TO KNOW MORE! For a cult who’s motto is “Darken Provides”, they sure don’t provide the audience with many answers…which I guess is actually pretty typical for out there religions.
Darken releases in Canada on June 29th, 2018.
By Matt Konopka